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Reflections on a Ravaged Century ()


CSPAN Booknotes (2000)

For the most part, this book is a well deserved victory lap by one of the real heroes of the Cold War.  At a time when most intellectuals and politicians had surrendered the ideological battle, or were actively collaborating with the Soviet Union, it was Robert Conquest, in his epochal books The Great Terror and Harvest of Sorrow, who demonstrated--in such a way that no truly open-minded person could really doubt--that Russia's Communist regime was just as murderous as Hitler and the Nazis, if not more so.  Though it is quickly being forgotten, Conquest's honest appraisal was extremely rare and was greeted with almost uniform hostility.  Most academics after all are left-leaning and so hoped that the Soviet experiment would eventually work out, while even politicians of the Right, like Richard Nixon, were so intent on pursuing diplomacy with the Russians that they did not care to hear about such bitter truths.

This book then, presenting more of a series of essays than a sustained thesis, allows Conquest to revisit old turf and settle old scores, place the murderous ideologies of the century in some perspective and finally to draw some conclusions and make some suggestions.  His main points about the ideologies are very straightforward :

    The huge catastrophes of our era have been inflicted by human beings driven by certain thoughts.

and

    The book's general theme, then, is that any concept given anything like absolute status becomes not
    a guide to action but an abstraction whose imposition on reality reveals an incompatibility, as
    engineers say of parts that do not fit, by main force, and even then ineffectively or ruinously.

His discussion of why these ideologies appeal to intellectuals offers one of the most chilling quotations you're likely to find :

    ...if it could be shown that humanity would live happily ever after if the Jews were exterminated,
    there could be no good reason not to proceed with their extermination.
        -Bertrand Russell

This attitude was unfortunately reflective of too many intellectuals who believed that the application of reason to man's affairs would necessarily yield utopian results, regardless of short term consequences.
Conquests arguments on these points have been put better elsewhere by other authors (see for instance, The True Believer : Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951)(Eric Hoffer  1902-1983) (Grade: A) and The Road to Serfdom (1944)(F. A. [Friedrich August von] Hayek 1899-1992) (Grade: A+), but you can't really begrudge him the opportunity to sum up what he's learned.

It's in the final section of the book that Conquest really piqued my interest.  There he suggests ways to avoid a repeat of the Ravaged Century, particularly by resurrecting Winston Churchill's old vision of a unified English-Speaking World :

    Generally speaking, closer integration of the (in the main) English-speaking countries, can create a
    center of power attractive to the other countries with a democratic tradition and form the basis of a
    yet broader political unity in the longer run.  And this in turn could eventually be the foundation
    for a full unity of a democratized world.

The starting point for this grand alliance would be for Britain to bail out of the European Union and join NAFTA, a recognition that England is less European than it is democratic and capitalist.

I am less sanguine than Mr. Conquest about future steps which he envisions duplicating the American Federal System on a larger scale, with the US, Australia, Canada, Britain, New Zealand, etc. as "united states."  But even he cautions that the federal institutions of such an "Association" would have to be pretty weak just to gain acceptance from Americans.  Despite some misgivings, the core idea here is really compelling. Moreover, especially if the Tories return to power in Britain, the initial steps are entirely doable.  In fact, the Tories could run on a NAFTA instead of EU platform and probably do quite well.

The world can never repay the debt it owes to Robert Conquest and the other lonely voices who never lost sight of the central fact that the Soviet Union was, to quote another of the voices, "the focus of evil in the Modern World."  This book, though somewhat unfocused and a bit overfamiliar, allows him to share the lessons of a lifetime and to offer some interesting ideas about the future.  It's well worth reading.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (B)

  

Websites:

Book-related and General Links:
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : "robert conquest"
    -Robert Conquest's Home page (Hoover Institute)
    -BOOKNOTES : Reflections on a Ravaged Century by Robert Conquest (C-SPAN)
    -ARCHIVES : "robert conquest" (Find Articles)
    -ARCHIVES : "robert conquest" (NY Review of Books)
    -ESSAY : Bonds and Bureaucentrism : A union of English-speaking nations would provide a plausible alternative direction for the world's future political evolution. (Robert Conquest, American Outlook)
    -LECTURE :  Freedom, Terror, and Falsehoods: Lessons From the Twentieth Century  (Robert Conquest,  Senior Research Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University, The Independent Policy Forum Transcripts)
    -INTERVIEW : Elizabeth Farnsworth talks with historian Robert Conquest about his new book Reflections on a Ravaged Century. (Online Newshour, PBS)
    -ESSAY : Global Perils in Perspective (Robert Conquest, Hoover Institute)
    -ESSAY : THE WEST: Victory, for Now (Robert Conquest, National Review)
    -ESSAY : Robert Conquest Talks About George Orwell and Alger Hiss (Hoover Digest)
    -ESSAY : Learning to Unlearn the Leninist Mindset (Robert Conquest)
    -ESSAY : MAX EITINGON: ANOTHER VIEW (Robert Conquest, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY :  The Cold War over CNN's Cold War  (HOOVER DIGEST 1999 No. 4, Richard Pipes, Robert Conquest, and John Lewis Gaddis)
    -REVIEW : David King's The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin's Russia (Robert Conquest, Hoover Digest)
    -REVIEW : of KATYN The Untold Story of Stalin's Polish Massacre. By Allen Paul (Robert Conquest, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of RISE AND FALL By Milovan Djilas (Robert Conquest, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : Mar 6, 1997 Robert Conquest: Terrorists (NY Review of Books)
       The Unknown Lenin: From the Secret Archives edited by Richard Pipes
       Stalin's Letters to Molotov: 1925-1936 edited by Lars T. Lih, Oleg V. Naumov, and Oleg V. Khlevniuk
    -PROFILE : PUTTING PIECES TOGETHER FOR SOVIET FAMINE BOOK (WALTER GOODMAN, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of REFLECTIONS ON A RAVAGED CENTURY By Robert Conquest (RICHARD BERNSTEIN, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of Reflections on a Ravaged Century By Robert Conquest (Josef Joffe, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of  Michael Ignatieff: The Man Who Was Right (NY Review of Books)
       Reflections on a Ravaged Century by Robert Conquest
    -EXCHANGE OF LETTERS : by Conquest and Ignatieff (NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW : of Reflections on a Ravaged Century by Robert Conquest (Aaron L. Friedberg, Commentary)
    -REVIEW : of Reflections (Michael Young, Reason)
    -REVIEW : of Reflections on a Ravaged Century by Robert Conquest (Josh London, American Spectator)
    -REVIEW : of Reflections on a Ravaged Century (IAN CUMMINS, The Age)
    -REVIEW :   Reflections on a Ravaged Century (Leon Aron, International Herald Tribune on March 13, 2000)
    -REVIEW : of Reflections (Michael Young, Reason)
    -REVIEW : of Reflections ( S. Frederick Starr, Wilson Quarterly)
    -REVIEW : of THE HARVEST OF SORROW. Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine. By Robert Conquest (John Gross, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of THE HARVEST OF SORROW Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine. By Robert Conquest (Craig R. Whitney, NY Times Book Review)
    -LETTER : response to Whitney's review (Robert Conquest, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of STALIN Breaker of Nations. By Robert Conquest (Richard Pipes, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE GREAT TERROR A Reassessment. By Robert Conquest (Norman Davies, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of STALIN AND THE KIROV MURDER By Robert Conquest (Peter H. Solomon Jr, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of STALIN AND THE KIROV MURDER By Robert Conquest (John Gross, NY Times)
    -BOOK LIST : National Review Top 100 Books of the 20th Century (#21.) The Great Terror, Robert Conquest
 

GENERAL :
    -ESSAY :  Revelations, Secrets, Gossip and Lies: Sifting Warily Through the Soviet Archives (Steven Merritt Miner, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY : INTELLECTUALS AND ASSASSINS - ANNALS OF STALIN'S KILLERATI  (Stephen Schwartz, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY :  SOLZHENITSYN AND ANTI-SEMITISM: A NEW DEBATE (RICHARD GRENIER, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : Nov 4, 1999 Jason Epstein: Always Time to Kill (NY Review of Books)
       BOOKS REFERRED TO IN THIS ARTICLE
       Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege, 1942-1943 by Antony Beevor
       Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland by Christopher R. Browning
       Zhukov's Greatest Defeat: The Red Army's Epic Disaster in Operation Mars, 1942 by David M. Glantz and with German
       translations by Mary E. Glantz
       An Intimate History of Killing: Face-to-Face Killing in Twentieth-Century Warfare by Joanna Bourke
       The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam by Bao Ninh
       Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris by Ian Kershaw
       Hitler's Army: Soldiers, Nazis, and War in the Third Reich by Omer Bartov
       The Iliad by Homer and translated by Robert Fagles
       The First World War by John Keegan
       The Pity of War by Niall Ferguson
    -REVIEW : of Night of Stone by Catherine Merridale : Culture of death : A historian's view of 20th century Russia shows the traumatic legacy of totalitarian terror.  (Charles Taylor, Salon)

Comments:

Maybe you ought to re-read Conquest in light of what's going on in Iraq. He certainly does not seem to believe in the concept of democratizing places without civic infrastructure. (A point you've made in the past but seem to be forgetting lately.)

Also, you can substitute 'Christianity' for the bad words Conquest uses ('Marxism,' 'fascism' etc.) in almost every instance and be just as apposite.

Faith is faith, and he does not put much stock in it.

I expected you to rate this book C or worse.

A few details:

The 'most intellectuals' applies to a coterie that few ordinary folks such as myself ever heard of. I first learned of Stalin's crimes from that obscure publication, World Book Encyclopedia, when I was 12 years old; first read statistical material to flesh out the subject in a book by the leftist historian A.J.P. Taylor.

That Stalinism or Russian Bolshevism was incompetent we can all agree, but that it was more incompetent than any regime that ever existed requires one to ignore tsarism. The paranois and craziness of the Bolsheviks is breathtaking, but no more so than the tsarists fleet's battle with Japanese destroyers in the North Sea in 1905.

- Harry Eagar

- Oct-05-2004, 16:55

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